Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 171–198 | Cite as

The human element: discerning the effects of potter’s behavior on the chemical composition of ceramics

  • Kent D. FowlerEmail author
  • Emma Middleton
  • Mostafa Fayek
Original Paper


It has long been known that the natural variability in clays, the resources chosen by potters, and the techniques used in manufacturing all affect the chemical composition of finished pottery objects. Understanding these effects is important in pottery provenience research because it cannot be assumed that the chemical composition of the pottery is the same as the raw materials used to produce it. There are, however, few studies devoted to monitoring the effects of potter’s practices on the chemical composition of finished products relative to the raw materials used in manufacturing them. In this study, we investigate the effects that procurement strategies and processing techniques have on the chemical composition of vessels made by Zulu potters in South Africa relative to the raw materials they use in manufacturing them. Our comparative analyses included clays used for potting, sediments, pastes, finished vessels, and building clays from five communities of potters. Our results show that the effects of different procurement strategies and processing methods range from negligible (there is a close geochemical match to resources) to profound (making it exceedingly difficult to discern the geological origin of raw materials). We argue that such analyses of ethnographic materials provide insights into explaining why pottery composition varies locally, regionally, and amongst functional types of vessels; the appropriateness of certain research designs, analytical methods, and statistical analyses; and how the petrographic and geochemical study of ethnographic pottery collections should be a primary and not ancillary effort in pottery provenience research.


Ethnoarchaeology Ethnomineralogy Ceramic technology Ceramic manufacture Chemical composition South Africa 



The ethnographic research upon which this paper is based has been conducted since 2002. Fieldwork would not have been accomplished without the assistance of Rauri Alcock and Creina Alcock, Patricia Anderson, the late Juliet Armstrong, Jan Engelbrecht, Bill and Anne Harder, the late Frank Jolles, Francis Mdiba, Nkosi Msiza, Len and Catherine van Schalkwyk, Gavin Whitelaw, and Bonginkosi Zondi. We are eternally grateful to the potters and their families that shared both their time and knowledge with us over the years: the Nala, Magwaza, and Nxumalo families in Nkandla; the Dhlamini and Mtungwa families in Msinga; the Ngubane family in Ulundi; the Gumbi, Nonhlanhla, and Nyawo families of the Ntshengase Traditional Authority; and the Dlamini, Gumede, Khumalo, Mbuyisa, Mkhwamubi, Mngomezulu, Ndlovu, and Zikhali families of the Mathenjwa Traditional Authority. In the lab, we would like to thank Neil Ball and Dr. Frank Hawthorne for providing assistance and access to the XRD facility at the University of Manitoba. We are further thankful to Dr. Dean Arnold and an anonymous reviewer for their astute reading of the manuscript and thoughtful insights that improved the clarity of the paper.

Funding information

This research was funded by grants to KF from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Grant Nos. 752-99-1163, 756-2002-0381, 410-2008-2710), a University of Manitoba Graduate Fellowship to EM, and by Canada Research Chairs in Environmental and Isotope Geochemistry and a Discovery Grant to MF from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kent D. Fowler
    • 1
    Email author
  • Emma Middleton
    • 1
  • Mostafa Fayek
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of ManitobaWinnipegCanada
  2. 2.Department of Geological SciencesUniversity of ManitobaWinnipegCanada

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